A digital front door: Cornwall council’s plan to make up for underinvestment and a failed supplier partnership

At the start of the year, Cornwall Council’s cabinet approved an £18m digital improvement plan that aims to fix years of IT underinvestment. Gill Hitchcock reports.

Cornwall Council is based in  Truro, pictured here – Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

“We’re behind the curve with our IT,” says Mark Read, Cornwall Council’s service director for customer access and digital services.

“We entered into a strategic partnership with BT, which was supposed to provide an IT service, but it didn’t,” he says. This unsuccessful outsourcing contract, which was signed in 2013, ended two years later after a well-publicised court battle.

Since then, the team has been working on a new plan, and has spent the past year putting together a case for an £18m investment in IT, which was approved by the council’s cabinet in January this year.

The plan doesn’t only address the failed contract, it also aims to counter years of underinvestment in IT that cause frustrations for staff and residents.

“Our vision is for a single front door to our services,” says Read. “From a customer point of view, the lack of joined up services is a big issue.

“If you’re on our website looking for planning information you would sign up to our planning portal. But if you want to deal with us digitally around council tax, sign up for a direct debit or register a change of address, that would mean logging on through a separate portal.”

Meanwhile, Read says that staff face an average log-on time of 20 minutes every morning, making it difficult just to access the various systems the council uses. “We also have an ageing technology set. More than 50% of our kit is older than four years,” he says.

The council is also keen to integrate its social care and health work, he says, but currently staff must access health records from one laptop or desktop and another for social care records. “We’ve got staff carrying around two laptops because they need to access two different datasets,” he says.

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Initially Cornwall’s cabinet had three options to improve the situation. The first was to make a minimal investment in its core IT infrastructure, including upgrading electronic document management, servers, laptops, desktops and WiFi. The second proposed an additional investment in ‘smarter working’ for staff.

But earlier this year, it voted for a third option: a major upgrade over the next three years, saying that this provided the best opportunity to modernise and protect frontline services.

Cornwall’s blueprint for this, the digital improvement plan, was written by Read and chief information officer Stuart Gaslonde after extensive consultations with other organisations, staff and service users.

The ‘single front door’ will deliver an integrated hub to enable two-way transactions between the council and its customers across a range of services. There will be a single view of customer data about council tax, benefits, elections and health that currently sits in silos.

“Cross-matching our benefits data with free school meals data, for example, could help us make sure that people are getting their entitlements,” says Read.

Staff will see their mobile devices upgraded and a new platform will allow better remote working.

“Cornwall is a big county – 100 miles from one end to another – and we have many staff who do a lot of miles attending meetings and seeing clients,” says Read. “We want to have modern kit, such as Skype for Business, so we don’t have to travel as much.”

Along with a core infrastructure refresh, other initiatives include extending WiFi to all council sites, using cloud-based tools for quicker information sharing and better collaboration and trials of Internet of Things technologies.

Read emphases, however, that the programme is as much about cultural change as technology. It will mean new ways of working and staff will have to “think digitally”. The plan acknowledges that staff will need time to learn about new technologies, but it says they must embrace the digital disruption as an opportunity.

‘Not just a venture capital investment in kit’

With an initial investment of £9m already allocated from the council’s capital programme, Read says that the plan is in “mobilisation phase”. This should be finished by the end of the month, after which he will publish a three-year work programme.

The rest of the money is expected to come from an underspend in its capital budget in this financial year or next, as well any cash it brings in from potential damages following the end of the BT contract.

The council has high hopes it will recoup some of the costs, too: it expects to save £2m on the costs of existing contracts and arrangements over the lifetime of the programme.

It also hopes that better productivity will bring in revenue – unresponsive hardware or applications are estimated to cost the council £4.6m a year, while videoconferencing could cut travel expenses by 20%. Cornwall also hopes to save £90,000 a year on print costs, as staff will have the information they need on their devices.

But Read says that one of his biggest concerns is making sure that the programme isn’t just a venture capital investment in kit that people don’t fully embrace or make the most of.

He also wants to make sure that the council is moving at the right speed for local people, saying he is in conversations with local universities about joint research to understand the less technical elements of the work.

“The sort of things we are discussing are the softer things around people’s digital behaviour, why people do or don’t use digital services,” says Read. “We are investing a lot of money and we need our residents to come with us on this. What will entice them to use these services and how can we work with people who are resistant?”

In addition, Read says there is a concern that rapid advances in technologies mean there is a risk of the three-year programme becoming out of date before its end date.

“Probably in about two years’ time we will be coming back to the organisation with the next phase of the digital improvement plan, because the world has moved on.”


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